Cobalt from Congo: how to source it better

As the transition to electric vehicles is gaining speed in Europe and globally, demand for cobalt has jumped over past years and will significantly increase in the future. This trend is expected to mostly impact the mining landscape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as the country accounts for around ⅔ of global cobalt production.

 

The clean mobility and energy transition will only be truly sustainable if cobalt - and other precious metals - is sourced in socially and environmentally responsible ways. In the DRC case, this implies closer monitoring for both artisanal small-scale mining and large-scale professional mining. Both face issues: while artisanal mining is mostly exposed to human rights abuses and unsafe working conditions, industrial mining sector regularly faces corruption issues as well as environmental mismanagement.

T&E has compared 6 existing international supply chain certification schemes applicable to the industrial cobalt production in the DRC. This analysis shows that while most schemes are comprehensive in their design and sustainability criteria, they lack proper and independent enforcement. Crucially, traceability on where cobalt is extracted and transparent information on mining site conditions on the ground remain the weakest spots of most schemes. This means that today it is impossible for companies to guarantee and NGOs to verify that the cobalt they are using is sourced responsibly.

Going forward, T&E identifies the following best practices that should be incorporated into any future supply chain standard to ensure sustainability:

- A balanced panel of industry, government and NGO representatives should be involved during all phases of any certification scheme, from initial design to compliance monitoring and enforcement.

- Multi-tier certification systems, allowing different levels of engagement and set of rules to member companies, are a practical solution to attract new industry players and improve performance of more experienced companies. Such systems provide necessary flexibility to both large and smaller mining scales.

- As a minimum, certification criteria should draw upon the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Due Diligence Guidance, and ensure compliance with international and national laws, e.g. the International Labour Organisation (ILO) labour and human rights conventions.

- Traceability of the extracted metal is a prerequisite to sustainability certification and compliance. Beyond traditional paper-based labelling methods to prove minerals’ origin, several pilot projects are exploring the use of digital technologies, such as blockchain or QR codes, in certification as ways to demonstrate origin and trace materials’ steps from mining to downstream uses.

- The focus of any robust scheme should be on enforcement and compliance, (of which the traceability tool is the basis). This is best done by regular independent certification and audits procedures, including by independent third parties.

- Public disclosure of non-business sensitive information should be ensured, as this is essential to a schemes’ reputation and will reduce corruption risks.

Due to its informal nature, it is more difficult to guarantee consistent application of the above recommendations to the artisanal mining sector. But strengthening artisanal mining via fair remuneration, labour cooperatives as well as better health and safety conditions is the only sustainable way forward to better streamline and help more than 200,000 artisanal miners that are currently digging cobalt in the DRC.